07/02/2013 02:30 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

Strategic Standardized Test Regimen for Junior Year


Summer is here and students across the nation are rejoicing. But anxiety may stubbornly persist for the families of many rising high school juniors even as the focus shifts from final exams to sports, camp and travel. Relaxation can seem indulgent, or at least ill-advised, for those headed into a difficult year crammed with standardized exams and courses heavily weighted for college admission. However, truth be told, colleges and universities favor students making use of their summers to pursue passions outside of school; too much admission-focused preparation reduces the "authenticity" of your application. With just a little planning and study, students and families should feel confident that they are well prepared for junior year and can enjoy the summer guilt free.

The first strategic summer move is to decide whether you will take the SAT or the ACT (for an in-depth breakdown of each test beyond the scope of this article, please refer to this). Even for families who've done their homework and considered the content most emphasized on each exam, there is no substitute for sitting down under replicated testing conditions and taking a full-length edition of both the SAT and the ACT. Make sure you take an exam written by the test maker, not fabricated by one of the "big box" education companies. When the results are in, some calculated decisions should be made with regard to your test-taking experience. During this process, it's important to keep in mind that nearly every top-tier college and university require submission of either the ACT or the SAT plus two SAT Subject Tests (formerly known as SAT IIs).

But other than the most elite schools, almost all will accept the ACT alone, without putting you at a disadvantage (if you choose to submit the SAT, most institutions also require submission of two SAT Subject Tests). So, at this point as a rising junior if you have determined you will not be applying to the most selective schools, choosing the ACT would probably remove two challenging standardized tests from your junior year regimen.

The ACT is offered in September, October, December, February (EXCEPT in New York State), April and June and the SAT, in October, November, December, January, March, May and June. So what's the "right" date to choose? Of course, there are exceptions, but for the most part, the answer is clear. SAT test takers should sit for the March date for a few reasons: one, the exam falls far enough along in junior year to ensure that all math content for which you are responsible has been covered in school; two, although administered in the middle of October, PSAT scores are not returned until early-middle December so the March date provides ample time to allow results to direct your studying; three, taking the test in March frees precious time and mental energy to prepare for AP Exams administered in May and SAT Subject Tests which should be taken in June (to be discussed in detail below); four, the March date lands in middle of spring semester, a stretch devoid of major end-of-semester projects and assessments.

April's ACT is ideal for many of the same reasons. True, April does cramp preparation time for APs and SAT Subject Tests to some degree, but a later date is significant for the ACT because its math section includes Trigonometry, which is frequently not covered until junior year in high school. Furthermore, the April ACT is typically administered shortly after spring break, allowing more time to study for a thorough final push in standardized test preparation.

With either the SAT or the ACT out of way, if you choose to take the SAT Subject Tests in June you will have six to ten weeks to focus on them. Students should try to select one humanities and one quantitative Subject Test. If, for example, you're taking Trigonometry/Pre-Calculus and American History in your junior year, you should consider taking the SAT Math II and SAT US History Subject Tests. Make sure the content covered in each of the courses falls outside the scope of material included on the SAT or the ACT; admission officers want you to demonstrate breadth of academic skill. The exams should correspond to yearlong courses in which you're doing well. There is often synergy between final exam preparation and SAT Subject Test preparation; taking the tests in June allows the full content of your courses to work to your benefit.

In conclusion: if you are a rising junior, take an SAT and ACT practice test this summer. Consider your test-taking experience and scores in conjunction with your freshman and sophomore year transcripts and the application requirements of the colleges on a realistic, preliminary list. Then, set as your target either the March SAT or the April ACT. Evaluate your choices for the SAT Subject Tests; start thinking about which ones you might like to take and then during the fall semester, reevaluate your choices once you've had some practice with the material covered in corresponding courses. If you're feeling motivated, rising junior summer is a great time to sit down with a high quality vocabulary list specifically designed for standardized tests and begin memorizing the definitions of unfamiliar words (especially important for the SAT, which has a heavier emphasis on vocabulary). In any case, rising juniors should start formal test preparation a few weeks before the junior year fall semester begins.